January 11, 2006

Myth and Myopia X: Whither Southern History?

While earlier authors had written to mold the South, to define it, to shock it, to glorify it, or to shame it, the men and women of the second generation also sought to explain the South, to capture its fading qualities, and to nudge it in the right direction. The chief concern of the first generation could perhaps be identified as an examination of the hierarchical struggle for dominance between Southern memory and Southern history (embodied in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!).

While this remained a concern during the second generation, the focus had somewhat shifted to the hierarchical struggle between the concern of maintaining established societal norms and the concern of allowing for basic individual rights and freedoms. This was, of course, a reflection of the struggle for desegregation; a final titanic effort by the entire nation to throw off the dead weight of generations of bitterness, poverty, and deprivation since the end of the Civil War. And, while the fight for equality was far from over by 1970, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s marked a watershed just as critical in Southern history as the Civil War had in the 1860s. By the 2060s, will the people of the South finally have learned just to be civil?

Positive changes which have transpired in the decades since 1970 have led many to maintain that the Garden of Eden descriptions of the colonial period and the New South myth of the early 20th century have finally fulfilled their promise in visions of the Sunbelt South. As has always been the case with such speculation, however, the South is not a paradise yet. Its problems are not over, they have simply changed. Nevertheless, the South has largely succeeded in leaving the term "Benighted" far behind.

Meanwhile, it is perhaps arbitrary at best, erroneous at worst, to place the end of the Southern Literary Renaissance in 1965. Its only significance in this respect is as the year when Flannery OíConnorís final work of fiction was published posthumously. Many other dates have been suggested as well. A great many other authors of the Renaissance were dead by this time, but a great many more were still alive, and some continue to write today. Perhaps it is safest to assert merely that sometime between OíConnorís death in 1964 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the second phase of the Renaissance came to an end.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a third generation of important Southern writers continued to produce regional material even as the South continued to change. Some have stated that the Renaissance is still going on, and will continue as long as the South remains a distinct region with something to say about itself.

However, in terms of a sudden flourishing of literature produced by a group of authors with more or less common concerns and experiences during a period of rapid change, the Renaissance period falls approximately between 1929 and 1965, representing a definite intellectual break from everything that had come before in the region. The thriving of Southern culture which began in earnest in 1929 may continue indefinitely, but its vital importance to a region at a critical turning point in its history has, for the moment, ended.

Meanwhile, for a very enlightening article about the current state of the South provided to me by my good friend Daniel Gallagher, click here.

Posted by Jared at January 11, 2006 10:54 AM | TrackBack